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Will the Maple Leafs follow the Oilers’ lead in recognizing Canada’s First Nations hockey history?

A longtime VLM colleague (known here as “Bobby C.”, though he has not been able to post of late) brought something noteworthy to my attention recently and it triggered the notion for this particular post.

Bobby could no doubt do a much better job than I can of explaining the project he was part of over the past six months or so, but I’ll do my best to provide a bit of background. The project I am referencing was evidently the work of Edmonton Oilers CEO Patrick LaForge and Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner Chief Wilton Littlechild. (If any VLM readers have more background information, by all means share it with us…)

Back in March, the Oilers honoured three former First Nations Canadians who had overcome significant obstacles and achieved great success in the hockey world. I believe they all first played hockey while attending Canadian Residential Schools. (Historical note: they refer to themselves as “survivors”.) Littlechild went on to play hockey for the University of Alberta Golden Bears. Ted Hodgson scored the winning goal for the 1966 Edmonton Oil Kings Memorial Cup championship team against Bobby Orr’s Oshawa Generals. He then played a few games in the NHL with Orr's Bruins during the 1966-'67 season, the last year of pre-expansion NHL hockey. He was only 21 at the time. Hodgson later played in the World Hockey Association.  Chief Running Deer, Fred Sasakamoose, played for the Chicago Blackhawks during the 1953-’54 NHL season.  (He apparently played his NHL game at Maple Leaf Gardens.)

If you check out the You Tube link and also visit the related Facebook page, you will see and read more about the history of First Nations hockey.

Modern era hockey fans are well aware of the significant contributions that Ted Nolan, a First Nations Canadian, has made at all levels of the sport as a player and coach. He has been involved  in youth and Major Junior hockey as well as the minor leagues, the NHL and the international scene as well.  Nolan is back coaching the NHL's Buffalo Sabres and remains one of the best motivators in the game.

From a Maple Leaf perspective, fans of my generation well remember longtime Toronto captain George Armstrong, now 84, whose mother was of First Nations heritage.

My sense is there is much that a lot of Canadians don’t know about the First Nations people and their history.  As a Canadian now in my 60s, I should know a lot more. In hockey terms, I knew Armstrong (shown in the late '50s at right, with Leaf legend Frank Mahovlich) as a great Leaf winger, such a strong player along the boards.  Even as a youngster, I seemed to grasp that he was a great leader on those Punch Imlach-coached teams of the late 1950s through to the late 1960s.

But while I knew “The Chief”, as he was called back then, had a unique hockey background, I never thought too much about it. As a young hockey fan, I certainly never could have appreciated or understood the road that First Nation Canadians like Littlechild, Sasakamoose and Hodgson in particular would have had to travel.  I certainly could not appreciate or understand as a child back then the attitude and discrimination that First Nations Canadians had to face in those days—and perhaps at times, sadly, to this day as well.  

The short documentary is touching, and is a sobering peak at the injustices so many individuals endured.  But in the same breath it is an uplifting story that provides important perspective.

Watching the video as the Oilers honoured First Nations hockey, I learned that Sasakamoose was evidently one of the first ever First Nations Canadians in the NHL, playing for the Chicago Blackhawks back in the 1953-’54 season. I had no idea.

We all now recognize that Canadian’s First Nations people were often treated unfairly and had to endure terrible hardships. But it’s never too late to be made more aware of something that we may have only limited knowledge about. 

With that in mind, wouldn’t it be tremendous if the Toronto Maple Leafs built on what the Edmonton Oilers did earlier this year, and also created heightened awareness around First Nations hockey by honouring those who have made notable contributions?

The impact of our First Nations people goes well beyond hockey, of course. However,  MLSE (and in fairness, I don't know the organization's history or commitment in this area in the past, if any, and I may be unaware of some things they have already done) could play a vital educational role in this regard.

And that would be a very good thing.


  1. Hi Michael.

    I wasn't aware of the Oilers project to recognize the contributions of First Nations Canadians to hockey. (I did watch the news documentary a while back on the Residential Schools. It was heart-breaking.)

    Certainly Toronto, with such a famous and well-loved First Nations player and captain, should do the same. Colleen

    1. Hi Colleen- As I mentioned in the post, I don't know what the Leafs have or haven't done in this regard. But it seems as though there is an opportunity to do something. Thanks.

  2. This is such an important project to recognize not just First Nation hockey players but recognize their the depth and contribution of their culture to Canada..... I used to coach a lacrosse team on Vancouver Island and was honored to be invited to learn more about their culture and communities... blew me away their connection to life and the land..... Thanks for this posting!